(Ed. note: this post was originally written in March of 2009 and is now being reposted for the 20th anniversary of NHL 94. Enjoy!)
Hockey games have been around as long as video games systems have been. And even though the games constantly evolved as computers and systems get more complex, there is one franchise that most gamers think of when they think of video puck.
Starting in 1991, Electronic Arts started mass-producing hockey video games, and while they’ve been cranking them out every season (including the lockout year), only two of them will be inducted into the Hockeywood Video Game Hall of Fame.
NHLPA 93 and NHL 94 are my next selections to be put into the hallowed ground, next to Ice Hockey and Blades of Steel. Why these two games? And why together? These two years happened to coincide with the Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers rise to the top of the hockey world, as well as the golden age of home consoles. And to include one over the other would lessen the importance of the other.
So, let’s start with NHLPA 93. Electronic Arts, having already conquering the NBA World with Lakers vs. Celtics, and the world of the NFL with Madden, decided to bring hockey into the fold. Other hockey titles, like Blades of Steel and Ice Hockey, had a sideline view, where players who skate left to right. EA turned that on its ear, standardizing a unique vertical perspective, which brought understanding of the sport to a whole new level.
The first game, NHL Hockey, boasted an official license from the NHL, but not the players association. So, you could play as the Kings, but have no idea which player was supposed to be who.
So, when EA made the next game, NHLPA 93, they got an official license from the players’ association, but not the league. So now, you knew who the players were, but the teams were generic, with no logos or names. In fact, the New York Islanders were given the designation of Long Island.
No matter what the teams were named, NHLPA 93 was a great primer for average people to actually get to know the players. The game provides in an indirect way what the sport had lacked at the time, a focus on its stars.
The gameplay was fluid and fast, but so were the whistles. Some players, irritated by the fact that the goalie would often hold on to the puck long enough to have the whistle blown, would immediately try to pass the puck as soon as the goalie got possession. This could potentially lead to turnovers in the defensive end and an easy score, but that was the risk one had to endure.
NHLPA 93 had some truly great features that were taken out on subsequent games. The most notorious was the ability to make a player’s head bleed, made more famous with the scene in the movie Swingers, when Trent makes Wayne Gretzky’s head bleed for Superfan No. 99, Sue. (It should be noted that the version Trent and Sue was playing in the movie was NHLPA 93, which actually still had fighting and bleeding in the game.)
There was nothing more satisfying/demoralizing as seeing one of those little pixellated players writhing around, blood pouring on the ice, especially if it was a good player. One just had to line up their opponent just right and hit speed burst, and he’d go crying home to Mommy with a broken head.
Fighting was was another popular feature that EA included. Every once in a while, you could rough up a player by putting up your digital dukes. The gameplay would stop, and the two players would get ready to rumble. Uppercuts and body blows were your two weapons, and the player with the defter thumbs often won. (If you fought with a goon, your chances greatly improved) Often times the fight ended when one player just falls on their butt on the ice. But every so often, a player would take a beating so bad, that he’d fall to the ice, and immediately start to bleed like a stuck pig. To me, there was nothing better than to win a fight this way, sending your opponent sliding across the ice as blood gushed from his head. It was a rarity, but definitely a way to put an exclamation point on a squirmish.
Turns out those two features were so popular, that it made the NHL suits nervous. The inclusion of these things started a dispute between EA and both the NHL and the NHLPA. Neither one had signed off on these additions to the EA game, and agreed that both the blood and the fighting should be removed in the next version. This probably marks the last time these two governing bodies were ever on the same page. My guess is that they probably thought it detrimental to the NHL, which trying to clean up it’s act and become more mainstream. Leave it to Gary Bettman to continue to meddle in the game of hockey, even if it’s just a video game.
The following year, EA pulled both the blood and fighting from the game, and they were finally able to obtain an official license from both the NHL and NHLPA. But even though EA “took out the best part” from the game, they added something that made the game ten times better: the one-timer.
The one-timer became many gamers’ bread-and-butter play. Skate in with the puck behind the goalie, flip it toward the top of the slot to a waiting player, whose blast often beat the goaltender. There was also the one-timer from the blueline, as the puck would slide five-hole. There was the cannon one-timer, where the puck was passed to a player up ahead, who then shot it toward an unsuspecting netminder. There were many different versions, but the end result was often a wailing siren. And unless someone made the defensive adjustment to stop it (i.e. sit your ass in the crease to block/deflect the pass), games often became scorefests.
But one move that was prevalent in both versions was… well… some called it The Move, others called it The Deke. In my circle of gamers, it was called The Murray. (Since I had no life and played NHL 94 nonstop for a year). Everyone has a different name for it. The Move was, by definition, a finesse shot. In contrast to the one-timer, The Move was another benchmark of a player’s skill. And it was virtually unstoppable.
EA actually has a name for this shot: the Double Fake. Technically it was called The Matulac, according to the official cardset. (Named for one of the testers of the game.) You’d basically fake outside, then inside, then shoot outside. If you had enough space from a defender, and enough room to make the opposing goaltender commit, you had “clearance,” as my friends and I referred to it. And some of the players that could pull it off were also some of the more recognizable players in the game at the time: Wayne Gretzky, Jeremy Roenick, Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman, Mark Messier… All legends in their own right, both on the ice and in the game.
I said The Move was virtually unstoppable, but I never said it couldn’t be stopped. NHL 94 had a feature that many gamers never used, barring an exceptional few: manual goalie. You could toggle between taking control of a skater and the goalie, say in the instance of someone trying to set up The Move. Taking control of the goalie was a huge risk, especially if you didn’t know what you were doing. But thwarting an opponent by swiping the puck away… to paraphrase Jodie Foster from the movie Contact: “There are… no words.”
Adding to the gameplay of NHL 94 is the ability to keep track of records of past games: most goals, most saves and winning percentage. Again, among my Circle of Gaming Friends, we would use old players and coaches names. Since I always played as Boston (sorry, the Kings were a finesse team), my moniker was Don Cherry. It added to the replayability of the game. The 82-game season mode wasn’t introduced until the much maligned NHL 95, but the ability to play in the playoffs was more than enough to keep gamers happy. Because let’s face it, who has time to play 94 games?
Wanna know why NHL 94 was so good? Because it was designed, in part, by the same guy that programmed the Mattel Electronics handheld game, Football. You remember that game, right? The stadium-designed toy, digital display of the scoreboard, little red blips on a field, the tinny fanfare when you scored a touchdown…. An icon of personal gaming in its own right.
Well, Mark Lesser was the programmer of that and many other games when he was approached by EA to develop NHL 94, he eagerly accepted. But he had a little secret, which he admitted to in a 2007 article for DigitalPress:
“I remember being introduced to the sport of hockey for the first time. I knew almost nothing about hockey and had never watched a game when I appeared at EA with the contract for NHL ’94. Some of the EA staff took me to a live hockey game and I tried to hide my ignorance. I learned the real game from programming the video game. I was embarrassed at first, but by the time the EA guys realized that I knew nothing about hockey, I did.”
Can you believe that? The guy who created NHL 94, the gold standard of all hockey video games, had no idea how hockey was played! I can beat that! I knew a sportswriter who came from the Midwest, who was hired to cover the local hockey team here in town. He knew NOTHING about the sport, and borrowed my copy of NHL96 to teach himself the basic rules of the game. It worked, and he was rattling off the proper names of plays before he knew it. See, video games can be educational!
NHLPA 93 and NHL 94 continue to excite gamers to this day. Even though it’s been 15 years, the game is still as good as ever. Can’t dig up your old Sega Genesis or Super Nintendo? You can easily download emulators for your personal computer. Think playing as teams from 1994 is fun? How about teams from 2008-09? Or how about all-time teams? Thanks to some clever gamers, you could do both. Do some poking around online, you won’t be disappointed. Personally, I played as the All-Time Kings team, and totally geeked out as I played as the Triple Crown Line.
In the pantheon of electronic gaming, NHLPA 93 and NHL 94 stand at both sides of the entrance as a constant reminder of their awesomeness.
For an excellent fan site, head over to NHL94.com. They have more information than you can shake a stick at, including downloading some of the songs from the game and other goodies.
And here’s a humorous fan video, again from NHL94.com, dedicated to the 1993 L.A. Kings, the first time the franchise made it to the Stanley Cup.
Made it to the end of the post? I commend you. As well as ask you to consider buying some fine Hockeywood finery, inspired by the greatest video game ever made: NHL 94 (and NHL 95)…
First, the best-selling t-shirt in the history of TripleCrownLine.com: “I took L.A. to the Cup“
Back when men were men, (and the ice was apparently blue.) Announce you are “Old School” with this design.
Finally, the one thing that shows you have skills at NHL 94 and 95 is if you take control of the goalie. This shirt is proof of that.